Picking a favourite REM album is like picking a favourite child, or a favourite Jolly Rancher, for some people. It just can’t be done. Even the most ardent fan is a little cagey on the subject, usually muttering some sort of apology for not having a preference. There doesn’t seem to be a consensus even: some will never veer from their faith in Automatic For The People as the be-all and end-all of alternative rock, some will swear by earlier works like Murmur. New Adventures In Hi-Fi seems to cause some controversy, some fans bemoaning a lack of inspiration and a seeming apathy, some kneeling before the likes of E-Bow The Letter and Electrolite as (rightly) classic examples of the Georgians’ oeuvre.
Myself, I’m still learning. REM is quite the hot topic around YCCMB Towers, with much love up for grabs. So while I’ve heard a great deal of the music, I can’t claim a definitive opinion of any sort.
Not that that’s ever stopped me before. Green is my favourite REM. It’s living proof that major labels need not be the restrictive, binding influence they’re imagined to be, Warners' allowing REM to get away with some of their most goosebump-raising moments on this record. But REM were always accessible – their songs, while in no way lowbrow are impossible to resist, and certainly not difficult – on first listen at least. There’s great depths. There’s pop aplenty on Life’s Rich Pageant, for example, and plenty of solid, almost traditional songwriting on all their prior releases. That’s why they were so well-positioned to go on and become the World’s Biggest Band, for a while – accessible, yet credible enough for indie kids to fall in love with.
Green was the starting point, the move away from IRS that signalled that bigger things lay in store. It starts with the brash Pop Song 89 that, along with Stand, was the commercial draw that chances are were pushed as singles by Warner – Stand in particular draws some ire amongst diehards. But it’s the acoustic numbers that pull me in: starting at track 3 with arguably one of the band’s greatest ever songs. You Are The Everything is Peter Buck’s finest hour as a mandolin hero, and one of Michael Stipe’s as a singer and a poet. There’s undeniable emotion here, in the construction and rhythm of the words as well as Stipes’ delivery, cracking every now and then with held-in sighs.
World Leader Pretend, Orange Crush, The Wrong Child, I Remember California, these all pass by containing more moments of beauty in each one than some bands manage in their entire career. The latter, particularly, is for me the epitome of the wistful nostalgia that REM do so wonderfully (cf. E-Bow?), and The Wrong Child slays with one cry of “okay.” But I’ve been thinking about this post all week, and try as I might, I can’t put Hairshirt out of my head.
I’ve no idea what the song’s about. "I am not the kind of dog to keep you waiting, for no good reason at all. Run a carbon-black test on my jaw." Not the slightest, but I am convinced just from listening that it’s something vitally important, a bruising, savagely real take on something to remain nameless. I don’t know if it’s the suspended mandolin chords, or Stipe’s forceful grace notes on “here I am in your life,” but it really tugs. The phrasing is so unique, so REM, and it has but sparse accompaniment (on mandolin again), which is all that’s necessary: REM are not so much a band intent on the overblown, so quiet suffices when it’s time for quiet.
It quite genuinely caused some fraught decision-making to pick Hairshirt. After all, You Are The Everything is one of the classic indie pop songs of the last twenty years, I Remember California is so wonderful as well, but I think I've made the right choice, just about.REM - Hairshirt (Green, 1988)